Tomorrow marks the thirtieth anniversary of the Apollo 14 moon landing so this week’s picture is John Russell’s large pastel drawing of The Face of the Moon. This painstakingly accurate depiction of a “gibbous” (or more than half) moon, as seen through a telescope, dates from about 1795. The most faithful early representation of the lunar sphere, it hangs - appropriately - in Soho House in Birmingham, former home of the engineer Matthew Boulton and preferred meeting place of the Lunar Society, the greatest provincial philosophical society in eighteenth-century England. Russell, who lived and worked in London, was not himself one of the “Lunatics”, as Lunar Society members called themselves, but he was certainly familiar with their multifarious investigations into chemistry, physics, mechanics and astronomy; and few images speak more eloquently of the enquiring spirit of Enlightenment England than his startlingly clear-eyed picture of the pocked and cratered moon.

Russell was not a scientist by profession but a highly fashionable portraitist. He specialised in pastel, demonstrating a particular fondness for dramatic contrasts of light and shade. Thanks to the patronage of George III, the artist was able to style himself “Painter to the King and Prince of Wales”, but his finest portraits were of leading scientists: William Herschel, the royal astronomer, shown brandishing a stellar chart proving his discovery of Uranus, the so-called “Georgian planet”, Uranus; or the explorer Joseph Banks, whom the artist depicted by candlelight, looking up from one of Russell’s own “lunar maps” with an expression of great animation on his face, as if caught by the dream of one day mounting an expedition to the moon.

Russell’s interest in astronomy began when he was around twenty years old, as he explained in a letter of February 19, 1789, to Dr Thomas Hornby, Observor of the...

To read the full article please either login or register .